Pressure on local authorities and food laboratories was among the issues discussed at the latest Food Standards Scotland (FSS) board meeting.
One plan to resolve the situation involves a government funded official laboratory service in Scotland. This could result in the four existing public analyst labs remaining with local authorities but operating as a unified service under a formal agreement. In a Centers of Excellence model, all four labs would offer a mix of routine testing and various specialty techniques to reduce duplication and optimize resources.
Another idea would be for the labs to come together to operate as a single entity administered by the Scottish Government or FSS. This would involve the creation of a new body that would operate independently.
Long-term underinvestment in official laboratory services has threatened the country’s scientific capacity for food and feed, with serious implications for public health and trade, officials said.
Ensuring laboratory capacity
Ongoing resource pressures on local authorities mean that the current funding model is unsustainable. Moving to a new one requires investment. For the past seven years, FSS has provided public analysis laboratories with £150,000-200,000 ($180,000-240,000) annually for the national food sampling scheme. The new strategy for monitoring food and feed sampling aims to increase that budget to between £500,000 and £700,000 ($600,000 and $838,000) per year.
Officials warned that failure to take steps to secure service now risked complete loss of service, which would incur significant additional costs in the future.
The loss of official laboratory capacity in Scotland due to a lack of funding would have serious implications for the work of the FSS, local authorities and the Scottish Government’s overall health and food policy. Impact on ability to investigate foodborne outbreaks; and overseeing the safety, standards and authenticity of food on the Scottish market, including imported products.
A previous review of the Public Analyst Service recommended a shared services model, but local authorities could not agree on how to implement it. The issue was discussed at a board meeting in late 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit blocked any progress.
The Scottish Government has planned a financial freeze for FSS until 2027 at the earliest. The agency submitted an additional funding application and a business case. However, this was not approved and the resource budget was kept at £22.7m ($27.2m) for four years from 2023-2024.
Staff gaps affect skills
Another presentation at the meeting dealt with Scottish Local Authorities’ environmental health services.
Current pressures on the authorities include a lack of resources, an expanded remit, the impact of COVID-19 and the exit from the EU. A failure to invest in training and the supply of skilled workers, largely due to funding cuts, means that demand for staff exceeds supply.
As of December 2021, local authorities had 202 qualified full-time employees (FTE) to enact the Code of Conduct for Food Laws. They report a deficit of 60 FTE in vacancies and reported an estimated need of 380 FTE to meet all food law and EU exit requirements. This represents a deficit of 178 FTE, providing strong evidence that the current model is at an inflection point, officials said.
The risk of allowing this to continue undermines Scotland’s ability to protect consumer interests when it comes to food, poses a public health risk and could potentially result in exporting companies being excluded from importing country lists.
The results of FSS audits over the last few years have highlighted concerns about the capacity and ability of local authorities to comply with food law requirements.
Future board meetings will focus on implementation by local authorities and outline proposals to modernize the current framework.
Excellent recommendations from the review
FSS is also aiming to complete the project to review the cutting plant and cold store, although a number of recommendations are still pending.
In February 2018, FSS and the Food Standards Agency reviewed these websites following incidents at several UK companies that identified concerns about industry practices related to traceability, shelf life and authenticity.
There are eight recommendations that are ongoing, including four for FSS and FSA and four for industry. Another 10 were solved.
The industry has stated that it faces significant challenges and that companies currently do not have the resources or finance to implement those items that are not required by law. Ongoing proposals include introducing video surveillance at critical points in cutting plants and cold stores, and showing greater transparency by making certain information available to regulators.
FSS and FSA recommendations have not yet been issued due to delays due to the Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. Other topics include an attempt to evaluate a single organization conducting all official controls in one place and the introduction of a more standardized approach to wording shelf life on product labels and requiring companies to adopt it.
The FSA completed the project after updating its board in January 2020. The FSS said it was now appropriate to re-evaluate the priority of pending actions as the food crime capability has improved and meat industry practices do not pose a systemic risk to public health.
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